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Howes: Talent deficit imperils MI, Detroit reinvention

Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

Talk about a disconnect.

Here we have the state’s de facto political-business elite uniting behind a push to become the mobility capital of America as Michigan’s educational attainment, and the civic culture that enables it, slip ever deeper into mediocrity.

And there we have the city of Detroit amid the most extensive building and redevelopment boom in the past half century. Both are burdened essentially by the same thing: the prospect of too few qualified candidates issuing from the public schools — not just in Detroit, says the Education Trust-Midwest, but across the state — to participate in the reinvention.

How can Michigan make the case to be the 21st-century hub for next-gen automotive technology, and how can it attract the kind of talent that makes its living with its brains, if it fails to shape an environment that can produce enough graduates who are prepared for, and eager to compete for, those jobs?

How can a meaningful number of Detroit residents participate in the rebuild of a city long ago given up for dead if they a) aren’t properly trained for, say, the building trades or b) aren’t afforded the opportunity to train or c) well-enough educated so they can qualify for the training?

The answer is they can’t. This week’s confirmation that the city has fined contractors on the Ilitch Family’s District Detroit development $675,000 for not employing enough Detroiters is akin to treating a symptom that ignores the larger malady. That is, this state is preparing too few people to compete in the economy we have and will have, much less the one of a generation or more ago.

And that says as much about the cynical self-delusion of business executives, politicians, union leaders and critics on the outside looking in as it does the folks who may not have fully exploited whatever educational opportunities they had along the way. If that doesn’t change, the momentum of the past few years risks being partly wasted.

Put another way: work-a-day Detroit — the decades-old assumption that a good, middle-class job can be had without a solid high school education and some post-secondary training — is a thing of the past. No politician spouting hollow platitudes can erect enough trade barriers, or co-opt enough union bosses, or browbeat enough CEOs, to meaningfully change that.

Even if the next president could unilaterally rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement and kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership by executive order, would that give more Detroiters shots at learning the building trades? Or ensure that more Michigan college grads have the fundamentals to compete in the tech-driven economy the state’s powerbrokers are so keen to chase?

Nope, not that you’d hear that from Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, who are each using ’70s-era economic rhetoric to fight a 21st-century battle in which advantage increasingly accrues to the prepared, the educated and the innovative. A recent Wall Street Journal report called it “skill-based technical change,” where those with skills and some luck emerge as the ones best positioned to take advantage of new technology.

Does that mean Michigan — and the nation — no longer make anything? That a century-old tradition of manufacturing and engineering, still the lifeblood of the modern state economy, are economic dinosaurs? No, and if there’s any place that knows better, it’s Michigan and Detroit.

But as I listen to presidential candidates, their surrogates and talking heads in the broadcast media describe the angst tearing at the industrial heartland, listen to descriptions more evocative of the Carter years than the years of Apple and autonomous vehicles, it’s fairly clear that the economic change and dislocations of the past, say, 20 years defy simple political caricature. That’s putting it kindly.

The automakers still will assemble vehicles; suppliers still will build components; steelmakers still will roll steel, among so many other things. But the technology and the knowledge-based work that make it possible today and tomorrow means fewer workers are needed to produce the same output and, second, that the people doing the work are likely to need more skills and education to do it.

That may not be a winning message on the stump but it’s much closer to the truth than the nostalgic drivel that amounts to one big, fat distraction. Technological change, internet-enabled business and wireless communication are the great disrupters of our time — and virtually no one is immune.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.